The New Norms of Climate Chaos

Only Empty Clouds: A Parched China: March 28, 7 am EDT

Oh dread, I thought when the weather alert popped up on the screen this morning: heavy rain expected from noon to midnight. So much for my intentions to work on the wood pile, garden or other outdoor projects. And this might damped the excitement of Ann’s family’s drive to Columbia today to see little Henry.

I flipped on the WEATHER button since I’d had Google Earth up on the screen for the purpose of visualizing the places I have lived as I think more about “sense of place.”

Yep, there were the storms sweeping across the mid-section of the country, not quite here yet, so I’ll have time to fetch in more dry wood to stay warm til the storm’s past. More rain along the Pacific Coast, a good bit more down along the western edge of South America, too. I zoomed out until the planet filled the screen, pole to pole, and gave it a spin so that it would keep turning slowly–this always amazes me as much as it did the first time I did it a few years back when this amazing software was born.

And what I realized is that the US and South America have rain; Europe has some rain in places now. It is no great surprise that Africa is bone dry. But so is Austrialia, just this side of a “thousand year drought”. And more alarmingly, no rain is falling over the vast expanse of India or China. Nowhere!

China is in the midst of a “hundred year drought” and still extending that diminished volume into the record books. Twenty million (other sources say 60 million) are without drinking water (let alone enough for showers or for crops) in southwest China today. The hydroelectric dams have fallen below minimum levels and crop production has been cut by more than half, and the nation may soon have to import corn from the US (so our gas prices will go up since 1/4 of our gas is biofuel from corn.)

I’d known of the Asian drought, but it’s another thing to see the abundance of water that will sweep over SWVA today, and spin the tiny planet a half-whirl and see not a drop falling on those who would gladly and thankfully suffer the inconvenience of a day of rain. Google Earth is the greatest “reality” show on the planet, a visual education that ought to change the way we think about our tiny places on the planet.

Can this drought be credited to “climate change”? No, no one event–hurricane, snowfall, or flood–can be proven to be due to elevated average global temperature. Is this consistent with the kind of “abnormal” shifts we might expect as air-mass movement patterns respond to continental and marine temperature changes and the altered albedo, desertification, snow-pack reduction, and altered ocean currents that result from them? Yes.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I am reading my third (of the original five, chosen) book on China, Peter Hessler’s book, River Town. It was written prior to completion of the Three Gorges Dam. Reading about China’s history and their pride in this technological wonder (some of us, “wondering” why they would commit this kind of ecological murder) my eyes are slowly opening…my heart gains sympathy with the Chinese peasants, if not the ruling class…One realization is that storage of water is a critical cornerstone of the Chinese economy. Without large quantities of it, China does not move forward. (in the traditional sense of Western style “progress” ) OTOH, in 1975, China had a massive dam failure: 62 dams, in quick uccession, collapsed, like a chain of dominoes, one right after the other…230,000 Chinese perished. Chinese engineering has not been known for its integrity. Their dam failure rate is 3+ times that of the rest of the developed world’s. The Three Gorges Dam is built on an earthquake fault.

    In my other hand, as I am reading River Town, I shift to the Special Edition of the National Geographic, WATER, and read from the Rivers map supplied with this issue. On the back of the map, is a poster detailing hidden water costs. For example, in water costs, it takes 1,857 GALLONS of water to produce one pound of beef.

    How long will we continue to be cavalier?

    Great post, Fred! Thank you so much!

  2. I have the “Water” special edition of NatGeo on my desk. I almost dread picking it up, because it will inevitably lead me to more posts about water (or soil or climate or…), and “it’s just Fred telling us the sky is falling again.”

    Words seems so puny at times, so powerful at others, that my hands don’t know if they should fold one on top of the other while I sit at peace in my well-watered domain and take my ease or attack the keyboard is if those two sets of fingers could work without ceasing in the hope they could find the right words to reach just one other life beyond this valley and make a difference.

  3. I, too, am torn….the causes seem to multiply like hydras, and time seems so short. Just finished watching David Brancaccio’s(sp?) NOW on PBS on the gas industry’s free rein to drill, exempt from ALL clean water laws; fracturing….and it’s right on our doorstep. Many of my neighbors got all excited when the lease-seekers came around.

    But then, I also managed to catch a few minutes of Taking the Middle Path: Gross National Happiness…in Bhutan. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and buy it from Amazon. Then pass it on to your local library. It’s a winner!

    Thanks, again, Fred…and don’t fear: we NEED you to keep telling the world that all is NOT well. The sky IS falling…..